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Court turns down St. Louis County request for delay in April 7 election but could reconsider

Court turns down St. Louis County request for delay in April 7 election but could reconsider

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Missouri presidential primary 2020

Lani Barcelona, left, and Steve Zegel, right, vote in the Missouri presidential primary 2020 on Tuesday, March 10, 2020, at Christ Church UCC in Maplewood. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — State judges on Monday blocked the St. Louis County Election Board’s request to move the April 7 election to a later date but said they might reconsider.

The Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, said the coronavirus emergency is adequate justification for shifting the election but that state law doesn’t allow a mail-in election requested for April 28 by the board.

“While mail-in voting might be the best option under the circumstances, the Legislature has not authorized it” in such a situation, the three-judge panel said in its ruling.

The judges also rejected the election board’s alternative option of moving everything on the April 7 ballot to the Aug. 4 state primary election.

“The date requested ... is many months away and no reason is stated (in the board’s request) why the election could not be held at an earlier date,” said the ruling, which was written by Chief Judge Colleen Dolan.

Moreover, the panel said it doesn’t have a clear understanding of how county municipalities, school districts and other areas with April 7 elections would be affected by delaying the vote that long. The judges indicated they could reconsider if another date was sought.

Eric Fey, the election board’s Democratic director, said the board would meet soon to consider whether to appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court or take other action.

Some election officials in other Missouri counties have been discussing asking courts to move the April vote to June 2.

As the judges ruled Monday on St. Louis County’s request, Metro East officials prepared to go ahead with Tuesday’s Illinois presidential primary despite the pandemic and a state shutdown order for schools, bars and dine-in restaurants.

Local election officials made a last-minute push to get replacements for election judges who backed out. In addition to making presidential choices, Illinois voters will pick party nominees for various other offices.

Meanwhile, Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District officials decided Monday to ask the appeals court to delay the April 7 vote on a proposed MSD bond issue in St. Louis County and St. Louis.

If the court agreed to such a move, there would be no need for an election in the city then because the MSD proposition is the only thing on the city ballot.

Because it’s too late to delete the MSD measure from the county ballot, a spokesman said, the agency will seek an order barring the counting of any votes cast on the subject. That also would apply to any absentee votes already cast on the measure in the city.

Moving the April 7 election to June 2 was being discussed Monday by the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities.

“I understand it’s up to each individual County, but it would be nice to be unified in this decision, to save confusion for the voters,” said Lincoln County Clerk Crystal Hall in an email Monday to other local election officials. “We are in scary, uncertain times. The health of our poll workers and residents is our number one concern.”

Hall said she and others on the association’s executive board were seeking feedback from around the state. A draft request to the courts along those lines was being prepared by election officials in Springfield and suburban Kansas City, she said.

Under Missouri law, election dates can be shifted by state appeals court panels if a “disaster” prevents one from being held.

The St. Louis County board, in its request filed Saturday, had said the likely withdrawal of numerous poll workers because of the coronavirus scare led it to believe the April 7 election could not be held as scheduled.

The board pointed out that in the “lead up” to last week’s Missouri presidential primary, 111 election judges withdrew and an addtional 59 pulled out on Election Day itself. Since then, the board said, government officials’ warnings and orders about COVID-19 have “intensified exponentially.”

The board also noted that many election judges are retirees and that people over 60 are at higher risk of contracting the virus. Thus, the board said, it’s “a virtual certainty” there won’t be enough judges to comply with state rules requiring two judges from each major party at every polling places.

The board also noted that every polling place in the county has far more than 250 potential voters assigned to it and that an executive order issued by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page last week barred gatherings of more than 250. That was reduced to 50 on Sunday. Moreover, the board said, Page has barred gatherings in a single space or room of more than 10 people in populations considered at high risk for contracting the virus.

Moreover, the board said, many polling places are at schools, churches, libraries and senior living facilities “over which there is increasing uncertainty as to their availability.”

If a mail election were allowed, the county board said, ballots received would be quarantined for at least 24 hours, based upon “current guidance” that indicates the virus can survive up to 10 hours on a paper surface.

Kurt Bahr and Ken Waller, the top election officials in St. Charles and Jefferson counties, said for now they were moving ahead with April 7 election plans but were closely monitoring the St. Louis County court case and other developments.

“We’ve got three weeks ... before the election,” Waller said. “We’ve got time if we have to do anything.”

The state’s chief election official, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, said the April 7 election is moving forward but that he has an “open, ongoing dialogue” with local authorities and is “discussing different scenarios that may occur over the next several weeks.”

Updated at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday with name of the judge who wrote the St. Louis County election date ruling

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